Artist Of The Week : Miss Led
Miss Led, or Miss LED? This is my first question to Joanna Henly after sitting down with her at her Stoke Newington studio. "Most guys read it as LED, but it is Miss Led. At the time, I hadn't drawn anything for like eight years, I'd come out of college and had the usual - what now? So I did lots and lots of different things and it really affected me, identity wise." This feeling of being 'misled' and lacking direction now seems rather ironic, given the circumstances. Scanning over Jo's client list, you'd be hard pushed to believe that a few years ago she felt "like I couldn't say I was an artist!" and uploaded her art via a MySpace page using the pseudonym Miss Led. "Looking back on it, I was just so excited that I could have this safety of being at home, drawing on my dining table and then posting it." After a meltdown following a stint in PR, Jo began utilising the social networking site to her advantage. "I was connecting with all these people, asking if I could draw them, then I'd meet up with them and that was it! I'd learnt really basic code, so I could just share images to different people's sites, a bit like what Facebook does now with posting on someone's wall and everyone can see it. I just thought this was amazing, so I started with about four pieces and every time I posted people were really digging it. Then they'd share it, and then it would just increase and things just started happening." Jo went on to compete in Secret Wars, the world famous live art battle, and won despite her organiser friend advising her "You shouldn't do it, because no-one will know you and you're a girl." This gave her a taste for live events, leading her across the country and to commissions for Reebok, Nike and Diesel. "Because I got into it quite late, and there was the gap, it wasn't like this stream of academia and then chipping away, it was just like do or die and I think that put a lot of power into it."
Alongside this, Jo was doing workshops and working with kids and youth projects. This is something she's continued, and something which she tells me she sees as an exchange. "Once you start getting recognition and you realise people really like it, it's amazing how much energy that gives you. It just puts fire in your belly. Maybe we feel like it's a negative thing, to do something and expect a return? But that return is what then allows the next thing to happen, it's like cogs in a machine." Jo believes that when both the student and the teacher are getting something out of the experience, a nice relationship and structure is built, and this is clearly a winning formula. From doing workshops in London, she has gone on to lead them across Europe and Hong Kong this year. However, her fans are constantly connecting with her and her art, through the very medium that first brought her to their attention - social media. "Did you see that post of me drawing like, five strands of hair? It's insane, and it was the second time I posted it - look at that! The internet is nuts!" We pull up the video which Jo shared on her Instagram page of her sketching some hair lines, and has received over two and half million views. "You can spend months and months on a project, working for the biggest client, and they can be like 'Meh, I just wanted a drawing of an eye…'" She tells me that following a recent interview with Digital Arts, the most engaged posts are in the studio, or works in process. "That's what we do on social media, it's kind of testing the water. At my workshops, when I take an image of my student's work they're like 'Oh yeah, I can see it in a different way now.' It frames it, I've always done that." Jo also tells me about her 15 minute portrait project, where she invited the competition winner to her studio to have her own portrait drawn. She wants to interact and create this exchange process, online and off, because she feels that with her huge following, comes a responsibility.
EyeContact, Jo's new venture, is an expansion on her previous work for Intimate. Her debut solo show, Intimate took place in 2014 at The Print Space gallery in Hoxton and featured "all the amazing women that I had met through the art world. I asked them if they would visit the studio, and I could photograph them and conduct a short interview." She tells me that the idea for the format came from an A3 drawing she did whilst going through a bit of a quiet phase, called Bitter Sweet. "It was the first concept piece I'd done in so long, and it's about the sweet and sour of love. Where you get lost in this lovely sense of being in love, but are also at the edge of it. Where you kind of lose yourself and it's all a bit rubbish, like I've lost my mind and I'm not really sure if this is right for me but I'm paralysed by it. So she seemed to encapsulate that." Rounding up the likes of Grace Neutral, Alis Pelleschi, Skye Victoria Kelly-Barrett and Laura Pannack, Jo says "I wanted to document every acceptance and every interaction. It was so amazing and so exciting, and I just wanted to celebrate. Which I guess is what I've always done with my work is to celebrate something, and it wasn't until I went and did a workshop to a group of girls in Seville about six months afterwards that I realised what I was doing, creating these role models." The collage style pieces were the first journey towards what we see in EyeContact, and Jo tells me she wanted to play with statements in an accessible way. "I like the idea of them being a bit more playful than confrontational." She goes onto explain that "Before EyeContact came about I was definitely feeling like I wanted to do something with a little bit more meaning - for want of a better word. Because I'd gone down the commercial road, and it's definitely put me in the fashion illustration world. I love fashion illustration, I get it and I understand it, it's just…" She trails off and shows me a selection of images pinned to her wall which are a small insight into the project's inspiration. "I love the way ASOS magazine is shot, and what publications like Sister magazine are doing and there's just so many, really great role models out there at the moment. I mean, maybe not in the uber big press, but I think I wanted to question how we look at things and how we engage with them." So what is it exactly that she's questioning?
In the EyeContact press release, Jo says that the fashion industry imposes an unwritten set of rules upon women. "Be beautiful, be slim, be attainable. I put those three as a starting point." We both agree that despite the recent advances in feminism, the media and the fashion industry as a whole can be problematic. "With the amount of imagery we absorb each day, it used to be around 2000, but I don't know if it's now more than that, I question how active we are in the way that we engage with that imagery. I think for some us, it just washes over but some of us are really affected by it." Jo tells me she listens to a lot of feminist audio books, TED talks and reads Natasha Walter, Lena Dunham, Otegha Uwagba and Caitlin Moran. Perhaps this is why she feels she has solid distance from the Photoshopped, over edited and seemingly perfect visions of the female form we are subjected to every day. "I do find an alarming amount of self aware women, and that does bother me. It upsets me. I have a really amazing young niece and she's already getting that nervousness, and she's nine. It's scary." The selection of six prints which make up EyeContact also stemmed from the Miss Led Letters Project which started in 2013. A personal project combining portraiture and figure work with statements, it's clear to see it's influence on her new work. "It's definitely something that's going to be ongoing, and I have ideas of how I want to do it more, where I'm projecting letters on the body and maybe extracting them a bit. That might be a secret though!"
I have to question Jo's motives with EyeContact.The project is made up from models which she kept and collected for reference, from fashion shoots. She has built her career on working for fashion brands and has just released a video tutorial on fashion illustration to purchase. Why is she now urging people to question fashion? She laughs. "I think it does have a purpose so to speak. But I remember going to see the Vogue 100 exhibition at The National Portrait gallery and I think a lot of the stuff you see is very self referential. Some of the earlier photography, by Cecil Beaton featuring women that were present in the second world war - that was amazing, but I questioned whether it might be more interesting to go to a Marie Curie where you'd get to see real people and real stories, and go on a journey." She continues "That's what I came away with, that it just really referenced itself and it doesn't take me anywhere. I think that was a bit of a starting point for me. I don't think that's a hugely negative thing though, I really enjoyed the show. You question this whole idea, I guess Intimate did as well, very heavily responding to this idea of female empowerment and what that fucking meant."
Despite the majority of our conversation focussing on feminism and being a woman today, Jo tells me that she didn't set out to empower women through her work. "I didn't start drawing and creating having this manifesto. I can only create what is important to me, and what I absorb from everything around me." She then goes on to reflect "I remember, years ago, one of my best friends, he said 'You paint the perfect woman, my ideal woman. She's someone who looks amazing. You could not only take her to The Ritz but she'll jump over the fence and get scabby knees to get to a squat party.' And I was like, yep, that's my ideal woman too! Just fully confronting, aware and smart." But there is a different side to Jo's woman "Another theme which runs through my work is this feeling of being sensitive and being vulnerable. Being allowed to be female, in a positive way and understanding those as strengths as well. As human beings, gendered or not, we're complex creatures and we're constantly changing and evolving from one second to the next and I think that's what I find really interesting and what I'll never tire of." I couldn't agree with her more. I wonder what advice Jo would give to women starting out in the art or fashion worlds, having been through such a journey of her own. "Something that I always say is, it's not just about being really skilled and hard-working. I think the toughest thing is that you have to be so resilient and believe in yourself. It's so, so important because everyone, including yourself, will tell you that you can't do it." After spending two years repetitively sending her portfolio to the agent she knew she wanted to represent her, until they eventually took her on, Jo knows better than most that good things come to those who wait. "I had so many issues when I first started. I had street art, portraiture, and then I was doing pattern work so people would say come back when you've sorted it all out. And it was like, well I can't, this is how I work, I have all these different things that I'm interested in." She cites Tank Girl, the Pre-Raphaelites and Guy Bourdin, Nan Goldin, Louise Bourgeois as constant sources of inspiration throughout her life and advises to hold onto things that stick out in your memory. "The things that are still there, the things you can still access and the things that have made you you. I think it's so hard, especially being a young creative and to be so completely enveloped by the digital world and social media that you can get a bit lost in it."
I feel that Jo, like many other creative girls and women that I know, is aiming to bring together a conflict of interests. With EyeContact, she wants to encourage people to question what is put in front of them and know their self worth, through the medium of drawing impossibly beautiful women. She started her career out on social media, but towards the end of our conversation is telling me that her best advice is to "just turn your phone off. Have some autonomy over your time." Her illustrations adorn Braun packaging, sold to young women to remove their body hair, and they animate Clinique beauty products. It raises the question which I myself wrestle with constantly - can you marry feminism, fashion, beauty and effectively, capitalism? It seems that with EyeContact, Jo is trying to do just that. She is extremely aware of the current climate and the way the world around her works, and from her workshops to her social media feed, to her art itself she's inspiring others to become the same. "Maybe if you give people a little bit of help to look somewhere else, or access something else and question something in a different way then that's the first step."
Interview by Beccy Hill. All images courtesy of Miss Led.